Why Aren’t Cancer Drugs Better? The Targets Might Be Wrong

Carl Zimmer in The New York Times:

Twenty years ago, the fight against cancer seemed as if it were about to take a dramatic turn.

Traditionally, cancer doctors fought the disease with crude weapons, often simply poisoning fast-growing cells whether they were cancerous or healthy. But then a team of researchers hit on a new strategy: drugs targeting proteins produced by cancer cells that seemed necessary to their survival. One such drug, Gleevec, worked spectacularly in patients with chronic myeloid leukemia. But the clinical trials that followed mostly have produced disappointments. According to a study published earlier this year, only 3 percent of cancer drugs tested in clinical trials between 2000 and 2015 have been approved to treat patients. A study published on Wednesday in the journal Science Translational Medicine offers one reason for the failure: Scientists are going after the wrong targets. “I hope people will really wake up to the need to be much more rigorous,” said Dr. William Kaelin, a professor of medicine at Harvard University who was not involved in the new study.

Jason Sheltzer, a cancer biologist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York State, and his colleagues made the discovery as they were trying to come up with a new test for breast cancer. In certain forms of the disease, cancer cells make high levels of a protein called MELK. Extremely high levels can mean poor odds of survival for the patient. Earlier studies had indicated that MELK was essential to the spread of the cancer; indeed, researchers were already testing a drug for breast cancer that targets the MELK protein. Two undergraduates in Dr. Sheltzer’s lab, Ann Lin and Christopher J. Giuliano, used Crispr, the revolutionary DNA-editing tool, to snip out the gene for MELK in cancer cells. The cells should have stopped growing, but to the surprise of the scientists, they did not.

“The cancer cells did not care whatsoever,” Dr. Sheltzer said.

More here.